Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The untenured body

I've been recommended for tenure. Sure, the decision still has to climb through some levels of administration, but it's basically over for me. The weight has lifted. It lifted a little when I began my tenure-track post, but now I feel almost ..... normal.

I sleep better, I eat better, and I want to exercise. I'm looking forward to the post-tenure body, a healthy body. However, in all my privilege and good fortune, I pause for a moment of bitterness about the damage my career has had on my health, both mental and physical, and what my case seems to indicate.

During my graduate career, I've had periods of good physical health, when I didn't have chronic headaches, backaches, yo-yo weight, and anxiety. I worked on them all and, as on everything, worked extremely hard. I looked forward to greater "balance" in my life when I started full-time. But this hope was short-lived as the spectre of tenure review came closer.

Why be optimistic now? Academic training is designed to make us workaholics; the system depends on it. However, my old friends from grad school have turned around their health post-tenure in ways they assure me were impossible before. So, I believe that with tenure I can be a higher functioning workaholic.

This raises the issue, however, of the accessibility (not just the desirability) of academic jobs. My health is generally pretty good, and I live in a country with (still mostly) socialized medicine. If my struggles are in any way representative, then anyone with health or ability challenges may have their professional potential undermined by the rigours, no tortures, of the educational and employment system. (And all this stands without even beginning to address how sessional or adjunct faculty are exploited.)

Philosophy and science careers may not be attractive to women or other marginalized people because of the various ways we are given the cold shoulder. Yet, perhaps more than that social discomfort, however, we need to consider people's health. More than concerning ourselves with individual people, we need to consider how to make academic life more healthy.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Value in BS

After talking about BS in class and reading students' papers, I have good evidence that many of them believe that they are expected to BS their way through most of the writing they do in college, including in the class I'm teaching, and that their professors (including me) can't tell the difference between BS and sincere conviction.

Frankfurt's analysis encourages the students' belief that it's all BS, all the way down. That's because Frankfurt identifies author intent as the marker of BS, and the kind of intent that a BS artist has is the intention of speaking something about a topic when she is not an expert, especially when she is not passionate about it or sure of the truth.

But that is inevitably the circumstance of a learner. Students take courses because they are not yet experts. They write papers to practice skills and to learn how to develop arguments. They don't have enough experience with a topic to have a stake in it. And yet, some papers are merely BS and others are creative and well-developed. So I think that Frankfurt is wrong, and that content and form do have something to do with BS.

I understand exactly the feeling that students are reporting--that they can't help but BS when they don't know how well their ideas will fly. But I think that feeling of producing BS is a necessary stage of doing original work. It's how I feel in the early stages of writing--not yet convinced that I have something new to say. Making it all the way through a rough draft and then rewriting and rewriting cures that feeling. Of course student writing usually is not put through multiple drafts. But just because it stinks doesn't mean that it's bull.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bullshit in Media and Politics

I've started grading students' written responses to Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit."

Frankfurt writes that "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." Later on, he declines to take a stand on the essentially empirical question of whether there is more now than ever:
"Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased."

To my mind, this all but asserts that there is more now, and I would have thought that there is more right now than 20 years ago when Frankfurt originally wrote the essay. Isn't there more TV but less content? And don't media technologies allow us and tempt us to publicize our opinions whether we are experts or not? (Frankfurt says that "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.")

But a student raised the insightful objection that there may very well be less bullshit now than 50 or 500 years ago, precisely because we can all be experts or can find an expert. There is more information--even more knowledge--easily available than anyone would have imagined a generation ago. And the standards of evidence are widely recognized. Superstition, myth, and ignorance allow bullshit to proliferate. The internet counters this, though, in holding varied sources of information (wikipedia alongside library databases), in encouraging multiple reports of experience (product reviews), and in helping people connect (MoveOn or consumer groups).

Students also quickly expressed the view that the current presidential administration relies on Bullshit. Frankfurt writes that
"telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertaions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost." And this is why "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."
As one student paper points out, one can be caught out in a lie. A liar can be confronted with evidence. But bullshit, being empty and made-up, is elusive and always leaves the bullshitter a way out. The Bushies have been careful enough to remain ignorant whenever possible, to filter evidence, to isolate themselves from expertise and knowledge, to make many leading but vague claims, and so to indulge in the refuge of Bullshit.

Jim Johnson has a label devoted to such political BS.

Addendum: Students suggest films to accompany Frankfurt's essay, in particular Wag the Dog and Thank Your For Smoking.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Bullshit

Back in November I asked for reading suggestions for my Critical Thinking course. The one that I picked is Harry Frankfurt's contribution to the "theoretical understanding of bullshit"--his analysis of "the structure of its concept."

The 1986 article "On Bullshit" was known only to philosophical initiates until 2005 when, in a timely marketing move, it was published as a teeny-tiny book by Princeton University Press and found its way into the very short list of bestselling books written by philosophers. Others have cashed in since then, including the Popular Culture and Philosophy series at Open Court, with a whole collection of essays on Bullshit and Philosophy (see Rob Loftis' comment here).

Frankfurt distinguishes bullshit from lying. Liars know the truth and take some pains to conceal it, whereas bullshitters lack any sort of connection to or concern about truth: "this indifference to how things really are...[is]...the essence of bullshit." The bullshitter's "speech is empty, without substance or content." It is trivial; it is insincere. The bullshitter has his own motives, and in pursuing his goals, truth is a casualty. He does not even care about truth enough to lie. The evidence supporting a claim has nothing to do with the reasons why it should be accepted, for a bullshitter. And in virtue of paying no attention to the claims of reason and logic, "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

My Critical Thinking class has taken one day to discuss this book, and we'll discuss it more today. I asked for examples of BS and the students came up with the usual examples from marketing and business. Several also had some sharp political insights (more about that tomorrow). And there was the predictably cynical comment that the essay was nothing but a performative confirmation that philosophy itself is nothing but BS.

But the comment that made me chuckle loudest was that
"Scientology is the biggest load of BS that God ever created."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"How It Works"

The Summers Principle, from XKCD:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Here's something cool

A post at Feminist Philosophers on a crocheted mathematical model.
Gorgeous and smart!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Darwin Day coming up...

February 12 is celebrated as Darwin Day, and although events are planned in many countries for 2008, the big celebrations are being planned for Darwin Day 2009. Why, you ask? Because 2/19/09 will mark Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Is it a sad state of affairs that I hesitate, even briefly, to say these are days worth celebrating? Yes, it is. If I have any cowardly qualms, and I do, about calling attention to upcoming celebrations of the life and influence of such a major figure in intellectual history, I hope I overcome my own shameful vulnerability to the disapproval of irrational anti-intellectuals with this small act of bloggery.

(And if one can't note the upcoming anniversary of Darwin's birthday on a philosophy of science-related blog, where can one?)